A recent study that included over a million patients found that people with various psychiatric disorders have a lot in common genetically. The study was published this week, and its authors indicate it’s the largest of its kind. Its results show that different psychiatric disorders don’t necessarily have a completely different set of genetic traits. This discovery could be the key to creating tailored treatments.
The group of researchers included individuals from the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Singapore, Japan, and Australia according to Gizmodo. They named their work the Brainstorm Study. There were two groups of participants. The first was made up of 265,000 people who had been diagnosed with one of 25 brain disorders. These disorders included what we consider psychiatric disorders as well as some neurological disorders like MS, epilepsy, stroke, migraines, and Alzheimers. The other included 785,000 who did not have any of those disorders. Genetic data of each group was collected and compared.
When the genetic data of people with neurological disorders was compared to other people within their group, there was no observable commonality. The same was true when the genetics of the people with neurological disorders were compared to people with psychiatric disorders. When researchers started comparing people with psychiatric disorders, however, the results were much different.
The individuals with the most genetic overlap were those who had been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, schizophrenia, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. People with schizophrenia also shared similar genetic patterns with those diagnosed with other mental illnesses like depression. The same was true with those living with depression when compared to those with ADHD or bipolar disorder. The implication is that, for example, the genes that make an individual more susceptible to depression may affect how that person’s brain functions in many ways and may also make them more susceptible to ADHD.
This study shows that the “lines” between various psychiatric diagnoses may be much more blurred than previously believed. Senior author Brian Neale who works as the director of population genetics in the Stanley Center at MIT’s Broad Institute and as a researcher at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital issued this statement.
“This work is starting to reshape how we think about disorders of the brain. If we can uncover the genetic influences and patterns of overlap between different disorders, then we might be able to better understand the root causes of these conditions – and potentially identify specific mechanisms appropriate for tailored treatments.”
Understanding the root causes could lead us to identify why and how psychiatric illness first manifests itself, which could result in more effective treatments.
Another interesting discovery of this study is one that has been explored before – the connection between mental health and physical health. For example, people who have had a stroke and people who have heart disease have a larger incidence of the genes associated with depression than those who don’t fall into either of these groups.
There also appeared to be a connection between the level of education and the incidence of some psychiatric disorders, with people who have a higher education or higher intelligence being more at risk for anorexia nervosa, autism spectrum disorder, and bipolar disorder. Likewise, those with a lower level of education were at a greater risk for ADHD, anxiety, and depression. This may not be due to genetics, however. It could suggest a connection between “cognitive performance in early life and the genetic risk for both psychiatric and neurological brain disorders” according to the published study. If this is the case, then it may be possible to reduce someone’s risk of developing certain disorders by changing certain “life-factors” early in their life.